Word on the Wire

Month: February, 2014

Road To Hell

Full of good intentions, I set out to do some serious writing this week.  Did it go to plan?  Did it hell?  But if was far from a disaster.

     Monday scored high points for a couple of reasons:  season three of ‘Game of Thrones’ arrived  (gobbled up in five straight nights) and I received news from one of my publishers about a neat promotion with Apple featuring the Tallis series.  Having duly tweeted, Facebooked and generally shown off about it, I tied up a whole host of outstanding bits and pieces, including the delivery of a report on a promising piece of work for a grateful client – always lovely to receive good feedback on one’s feedback! 

     Tuesday, I got down to writing.  I only had one joyous interruption: a firm invitation to appear at CrimeFest in Bristol on a panel titled:  ‘Gender Bending’.  To explain to the bewildered:  Men writing as women and women writing as men.

     There’s an unspoken rule in our house that we incorporate a daily walk into the working day.  Me, because sitting on my rear for hours at a time doesn’t do my derriere any good.  My husband, because he suffers badly from what he describes as ‘cabin fever’ and I describe as ‘let’s go out to play’.  Sun shining on Wednesday, we set off and dropped into our favourite café in Cheltenham, Café del Art, to hand over one of my husband’s paintings for sale.  As luck would have it, our charming Polish friends were not, for once, run off their feet and we spent a little time jawing about life in general.  Our friends arrived here ten years ago and they have an interesting and unique take on the UK – all grist to the writer’s proverbial mill.  

     Next stop on our circular route, the centre of town, and that meant a walk past Castle Fine Art.  Normally, I glance in the window and keep walking.  On Wednesday I screeched to a halt.  Lost in wonder, I felt a tug on my sleeve.  ‘Come on, we’re going inside,’ my other half said.  So we did.

     The objects of our adoration were a collection of sculptural masterpieces by former furniture maker Nic Joly, cousin of Dom.  To say I was knocked out, was an understatement, but what made it as pleasurable was the warm, unstuffy welcome. 

     To put this into context, my husband, formerly a graphic designer, is an artist in his own right.  He doesn’t claim to be Picasso, but he has painted and sold portraits, pets, streets scenes and landscapes for the past ten years.  We are accustomed to walking into galleries and we’ve encountered the great and the, frankly, dire; places where the welcoming smile is replaced by a sneer, where your every step is studied and tutted at, as if you have no right to breathe, let alone step forth in such hallowed halls.  None of this kind of pretentious nonsense at Castle Galleries.  The guys were welcoming in a way that made you glow; knowledgeable without ramming it down your throat; open about pricing without making you feel as if you couldn’t possibly afford it so don’t bloody ask, and with a sense of humour that was refreshing.  I even got a cup of coffee.

     Cut to Thursday and, if you haven’t yet twigged where I’m going with this, stick with it and all will be revealed. 

     For a while I’ve been meaning to sell a ring.  It was bought a long time ago and belonged to another life.  I saw no point in leaving it in the bottom of a set of drawers, unworn.  I’d had it valued so I knew its intrinsic worth, but my intention wasn’t to sell it to enable me to eat next week.  Had this been the case, I’d have treated myself to a novel experience and visited a pawnbroker.  What I’d failed to understand was that, as with tastes in publishing or food or music, they come and they go.  My ring wasn’t ‘in’, but it took me four jewellers to discover this and what a grim process that was. 

     It’s easier to get into GCHQ than walking into the average jeweller.  There are buzzers and security doors, and dead-eyed sales assistants.  The universal glacial wall of disapproval is almost overwhelming.  And that’s before you state your business.  To be scrupulously fair, there was one refreshing exception, the kind of place where people smile, are friendly and don’t treat you as if you have no business taking up oxygen.

     Once in, and it’s revealed that you are not buying but selling, your average jeweller morphs into a used car salesman – I’m probably doing car dealers a disservice.  There’s a lot of sucking in of breath and mutterings of ‘there’s not much call for that sort of thing’.  One guy couldn’t be bothered to stir from his lair but instructed a shop assistant in a loud stage whisper to ‘Tell her that it’s very nice but I’ll pass…’ It’s as if my ring had been pulled out of a Christmas cracker.  Did I expect a red carpet?  No.  Did I hope for offers of huge amounts of loot?  Not particularly.  Did I expect a little courtesy?  You bet, and what pained me most was that the ‘professionals’ dishing out the snooty attitude were of an age to know better.  ‘Knock yourself out, take a leaf out of the young guys in Castle Gallery’s book,’ I wanted to shout, or pay a visit to Café del Art. 

     As it happens, I’ve got three daughters currently scrapping over ‘who gets Mum’s ring?’  Perhaps they could wear it on a rotating four monthly basis. 

     So what on earth does this have to do with writing, other than the fact that I’ve used the blog to let off steam?  All experience, good or bad, filters into a writer’s work.   That look, that mean or warm vibe, kind or nasty word will one day be processed and translated into print.  It could be that I’ve just found my new nice guys.  Better still, my villains.

     Moral of the tale:  cross up a writer at your peril.




The Vikings Are Coming

I watched the first season of ‘The Vikings’ over three nights.  You could say that I munched it up, but it wasn’t plain sailing (no pun intended!) It took me a little while to get into the Viking mind-set; nothing to do with sets and scenery, clinker designed boats with dragon’s heads and men the size of giants, but everything to do with Viking barbarism.  ‘Life is cheap’ doesn’t come close.  Hacking and battering to death a group of defenceless monks on Lindisfarne in an early scene is, as a character states, like taking sweets from a baby.  Perhaps it’s my sense of fair play, but where’s the fun in that?  It was like watching a clutch of marauding psychopaths and these are the guys we’re supposed to be following, caring about and batting for, I thought with distaste.  One episode in and I was actively praying that someone would rise up and give the Vikings one hell of a thrashing, preferably ripping their heads off.  Based on first impressions, I didn’t much care for Ragnar Lothbrok either, which was something of a disappointment, particularly as I adored the Ragnar of Bernard Cornwell’s novels, (the series is not based on his work).

So what persuaded me to keep watching?

First impressions, I’ve discovered, can be entirely wrong.  Ragnar, superbly portrayed by Travis Fimmel, a name so quirky I’m tempted to nick it for one of my novels, won me over and redeemed himself with one shining single act of kindness, (sparing a priest) his humorous approach to life, sense of adventure, and deep love of his family.  Ragnar, a man of his time, is a guy who, if you’re very lucky, you might meet once in a lifetime.  Moreover, Ragnar is the glue that sticks the story together.

In my day job I come across a lot of main protagonists.  As I read crime fiction exclusively for work, main players tend to be detectives, lawyers, journalists, ex-Forces, ex-criminals and psychologists, although I’ve had the odd banker, social worker and, of course, the happy amateur caught up in a dastardly plot not of their making.   The opportunity for stereotypes is legion.  Booze, dodgy pasts, spouses and parents killed in accidents – vehicles are favourite candidates – pepper the crime fiction landscape and it takes a smart writer to create a main protagonist so memorable that they leap off the page and shout ‘Hello’ in your face.   Whenever I come across these, I feel a little swell of pride in my chest because I know how hard the writer has worked in the creation.  Whenever I think of my favourite writers, and I’m not talking exclusively about crime fiction in this regard, individual main protagonists always spring to mind.  I almost feel as if I know them, which probably accounts for that weird sense of loss I get when I reach the end of a novel and it’s time to say goodbye.

How to convey this to a new writer – something I’m often asked to do.  The following is my cobbled together list of ‘must have’ and ‘must not have’ attributes:

Main characters must have bags of tenacity and determination.  Not being dogged enough is a big no-no.  If your main protagonist would rather attend a garden party, pour another drink and light up, take his dog for a walk, or get laid instead of jumping to it and solving the case, nailing the murderer, nabbing the robber, cracking the code, unearthing the secret, then the reader will switch off.

Allied to the above:  a character MUST care:  Be warned:  if your character doesn’t care, why should we?

Characters who seek to ‘educate’ are a personal pet hate and turn off.  Writers often have strong views, absolutely fair enough, but beware of using your main protagonist as a mouthpiece to push them.

Don’t make your main guy too good!  Forbid it for me to say that nice people are boring but when it comes to fiction, nice people don’t hold reader interest.  Allow your character to have a few flaws so that he or she is more like you and me. Even James Bond has his vulnerable moments, usually in the form of women.  This point comes with a note of caution:  resist going down the booze/drugs/unhappy in love/screwed up childhood route for the simple reason that it’s been done to death.  If, on the other hand, you can incorporate any of the above with a fresh twist, knock yourself out and go for it.

Whatever you do, if your character needs to be a crack shot in the climactic scene, or be able to hold his breath and swim underwater for 33 metres, don’t suddenly whack his talent in.  Ensure that it’s mentioned earlier in the novel.  I call this ‘foreshadowing’.  As soon as the reader discovers that the main protagonist is a whiz on a computer, we know that those skills are going to come into play at the end, and maybe his or her life will depend on it.

An allied point, writers sometimes feel compelled to insert a character profile in one wallop.  To be clear, it’s vital that a writer knows his character in detail, what makes him or her angry, sad, turns him on, turns him off, his likes, loves, hates and passions, the list is endless, but the trick is to use these pieces of knowledge and craft them in such a convincing way that the main protagonist is consistent within the context of his world and entirely knowable.  Resist a slab of ‘pin your ears back, this is everything you need to know about him, from where and when he was born until the current moment in time.’  If ever a reader is going to switch off the light and go to sleep, it will be at this point.  On that note, yawn; time to switch off the light…

Fine Young Cannibals

Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not going to blog about the above titled band even if Roland Gift’s cover of the Buzzcock’s ‘Ever Fallen in Love’ rates as one of my personal favourites.   The clue lies in one word:  ‘Cannibals’, not of the Hannibal Lecter variety, but the methods writers use to create characters. 

I’m often asked:  ‘Do you base your characters on people you know?’  Short answer:  No.  Extended answer: I might ‘nip and tuck’ odd characteristics.  Honest answer:  all writers cannibalise to one degree or another, mostly not from friends and family, (if they value friendship and smooth family relationships) but from themselves and their own life experience.   And you don’t have to be old to qualify. 

Observation of, and empathy with, others are two key attributes for ‘getting inside a character’s skin,’ and yet, in my day job with Writers Workshop, I sometimes read work where the writer fails to allow a character to have a voice, or even breathe.  Consequently, they become pale representations of what the writer intends.  In worst case scenarios, characters become stereotypes or parodies.

How to fix it?  Most of us know what it’s like to fall in love, get angry, be deliriously happy, sad, resentful, isolated or frightened, maybe even terrified.  (There are dozens of permutations.)  Stating the obvious, the writer has a ready fund of experience on which to draw, but it only provides a base, for the writer’s ‘story’ is not the same as a character’s in a novel.  

Depending upon a character’s unique attributes, skills and background, those emotions mentioned above may be felt and experienced quite differently to the writer’s.  What I’m gently trying to say, beware ripping off your vile divorce, run-in with the council, spat with your next-door neighbour, or next-door neighbour’s dog in a blind attempt to convert it into dramatic gold.  If, in fact, you become the main protagonist in your own novel, characterisation is destined to be thin.  There’s only so much  ‘writing what you know’ or ‘it happened to me’ that’s worth filleting and serving up to a reader.

Where does plot figure in tales of cannibalism?  One might think that there are two camps when it comes to creating a story.  ‘The character comes first’ camp versus ‘plot comes first.’  If you think about it, a story will only develop in a certain way, given an individual character’s idiosyncrasies.  Had Walter White taught geography, instead of chemistry, in ‘Breaking Bad’, it’s doubtful he’d have become a meth producer.  As important, the seeds of Walt’s resentment against his lot in life were there right from the first early scenes, depicted in his bust-up with his colleagues in ‘Grey Matter’.  Vince Gilligan and the entire writing team were genius in the way they took ordinary people, individuals we have come across and with whom we can identify and care about, and drilled right down into what made them tick.  In a sense, Walt’s story is a modern morality tale and, like most morality tales, it’s rich in characterisation.